Brown University President Rejects ‘Polarizing Calls for Divestment’ Over Israel
The president of Brown University in Rhode Island has rejected a call to divest from companies over their ties to Israel, saying such a move would be polarizing and wrongly turn the school’s endowment into “a political instrument” that takes action on contested issues.
President Christina Paxson’s comments came following a campus referendum held from March 19 to 21, which in part called on the university to “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”
Sixty-nine percent of the students who voted — representing 27.5 percent of the total undergraduate student population — backed the referendum, which some Zionist and Jewish students at the school accused of employing biased language and heightening tensions on campus.
In a Friday message, Paxson expressed appreciation “that members of our community are concerned about the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” but opposed “divestment from companies that conduct business in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
“Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues, especially those over which thoughtful and intelligent people vehemently disagree,” she wrote. “As a university, Brown’s mission is to advance knowledge and understanding through research, analysis and debate. Its role is not to take sides on contested geopolitical issues.”
“I have been steadfast in my view that Brown should not embrace any of the planks of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement,” she continued, in reference to the controversial campaign that seeks to isolate Israel until it accepts key Palestinian demands. Supporters have framed BDS as a human rights pursuit, while critics — including major Jewish community representatives in the United States and globally — have slammed it as antisemitic in tone and effect.
“In 2013, when a number of academic associations called for academic boycotts of Israel, I made it clear that Brown would not support academic boycotts of Israel or any other country, since doing so would inhibit the open scholarly exchange that is critical for the advancement of knowledge,” Paxson wrote. The previous year, she rejected the possibility of divestment “from companies that do business in the occupied territories, expressing the same view that the endowment is not to be used to assert views on contested social and political issues.”
After having spoken about the referendum to students, faculty, staff, and alumni in recent weeks, Paxson said she understood that many community members “feel strongly and deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and have a wide variety of views about a just resolution.
“Beyond the foundational concern that divestment would be a political act, these conversations have strengthened my conviction that divestment would polarize the Brown community and detract from the inclusive, intellectually-vibrant community we aspire to be,” she wrote. “I hope that instead of polarizing calls for divestment, the Brown community can continue to engage in productive discourse on this issue through our teaching, research and contributions to diplomacy.”
In a recent op-ed published by the student-run Brown Daily Herald shortly before the divestment vote commenced, the leaders of Brown’s Investment Office noted that there seem to be “misunderstandings in the campus community” about Brown’s ability to divest from any specific companies.
The school “does not directly manage its own investments,” they wrote, nor can it openly disclose the holdings picked by its external investment managers, which represent the latter’s “intellectual property” and “change dynamically.”